We usually associate romance with images of beach sunsets and candlelit dinners. Not alien landscapes.
But in 1936, it was a mysterious landscape painting that left American artist Kay Sage spellbound. Created by French surrealist Yves Tanguy, the canvas was filled with eerie organic shapes, rendered with startling complexity and uncanny realism. Sage later recalled that she “couldn’t tear herself away”.
And in four years, Sage (1898-1963) and Tanguy (1900-1955) will marry, living by the surreal belief that there are no coincidences: the title of this mysterious painting was “I’m waiting for you” .
There are many famous artist couples: Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg; Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock; Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, to name a few. But this pair of calmer surrealists flew under the radar. Unlike Dali or Miró, neither has become a household name. And, according to Sage, they “don’t terribly like the idea of being a team.” In 1954 they agreed to a joint exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, on the condition that their paintings be hung in separate galleries.
Today, however, their work has been brought together, exhibited together in museums across the country – including the National Gallery of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Sage’s paintings are more architectural and Tanguy’s more biomorphic, but the unreal places they capture – impossibly vast plains, devoid of figures but full of feeling – exude feelings devoid of language and logic. Seen together, their work bears witness to the harmonic yet poignant experience of the meeting of two living inner worlds.
Human connection, especially at this time of year, is often reduced to marketable truisms. We see love glorified in gushing social media posts and one-size-fits-all cards. I found refuge from the commercialism and clichés of Sage and Tanguy, because their art and their relationship captures something more honest about love.
The year of their marriage, for example, Sage painted “I Have No Shadow”. A dark, narrow passage opens onto two tiny figures standing on an empty horizon, as if torn from the ether and paired for eternity. Evoking the expansive and defenseless feeling of a new romance, it is an austere image, imbued with anxiety and hope.
Both Sage and Tanguy were influenced by the metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico, but they developed their own distinctive styles. Sage’s signature webs draw you into carefully crafted post-apocalyptic visions. With billowing textiles, strong towers and bridges to nowhere, they suggest a quiet “after” when functionality is long gone.
On the other hand, Tanguy seems to capture the essential. Researchers compared his biomorphic imagery to ancient rock formations in his native Brittany. Looking at them creates the feeling of having a word stuck on the tip of your tongue.
During Sage’s and Tanguy’s careers, sexism prevented close comparisons of their work. A 2011-2012 exhibit, “Double Solitaire: The Surreal Worlds of Kay Sage and Yves Tanguy,” at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York and the Mint Museum in Charlotte, marked the first time they had shared an exhibit since 1954.
In an essay for the catalog, curator Jonathan Stuhlman detailed Sage’s influence on Tanguy. Its forms have moved closer to the viewer; he began to use large characters (Stuhlman calls them “characters”); and the bubbly forms of his early works calcified into hard structures. Even his palette faded to Sage’s sage olives, khakis and grays, embodied in his “I Saw Three Cities” (1944). Put Tanguy’s 1929 painting “Le regard de l’ambre” next to later works like “Le mirage du temps” (1954) or “Indefinite divisibility” (1942), and you can see its evolution.
Tanguy first saw Sage’s work in 1938 and later recalled, “Kay Sage, male or female, I didn’t know; I just knew the paintings were very good.” They were introduced by a mutual friend and quickly became a couple. As Europe was on the brink of war, Sage, who was living in Paris, returned to the United States and founded the Society for the Preservation of European Culture, which brought French artists to the United States. Among them, the surrealist leader André Breton and, of course, Tanguy. Sage and Tanguy married in 1940 and a year later moved to Connecticut, not far from fellow artists Alexander Calder and Arshile Gorky.
“A blinding totality”
While some friends described their partnership as rocky, artist Roberto Matta saw a loving pair. “They even had happy fights. They invented fight humor,” he said. They went everywhere together, shared a studio and spoke only French. “Everything that wasn’t Yves was erased,” Sage said.
Through art, they often documented their life together. They exchanged paintings when they got married and Tanguy created several works titled “Pour Kay”. In 1947 Sage painted “Ring of Iron, Ring of Wool”, probably referring to traditional gifts for sixth and seventh wedding anniversaries. In the work, one of the two triangular shapes approaches the sea – perhaps a nod to Tanguy’s deep ties with the outside world. After Tanguy’s sudden death in 1955, Sage made “Tomorrow Is Never”. Tall dark towers trap twisted leaves, a recurring motif she usually painted while floating freely.
The space and constriction in Sage and Tanguy’s art could speak to their life together, balancing an intense connection with artistic independence.
One of Tanguy’s favorite paintings, “Le Ciel Traqué” (1951), hung in their living room. It shows two megalithic abstract heads composed of the same tiny organic shapes. From a certain point of view, the numbers seem to be able to merge into one. On the other, they seem to face each other, frozen in a perpetual and cryptic gaze.
Sage described their bond as “a fusion of two beings into one blinding whole”. Seeing their work is similar: you have to give up reason and succumb to another mysterious realm. Understanding it is like trying to really get to know another person – there is no end point, no takeaways, just a lifetime of learning.